Sunday, February 6, 2011

You Call Yourself 'Craft'? Make Your Own Yeast.

Back before Prohibition, before the rise of the "master distiller" as we know them today, the people who made whiskey in America were often referred to as 'distiller and yeast maker.' Booker Noe used to tell the story about how his grandfather, Jim Beam, made yeast on the back porch of his house in Bardstown. That yeast is still used to make Jim Beam bourbon.

If your intention is to be a craft distiller, making your own yeast would seem like something you would want to do, yet very few have messed around with it and no one is using their own yeast in production.

You don't 'make' yeast, of course, since yeast is a type of fungus, a living organism. You capture and propagate it. In the old days, before there were commercial yeast manufacturers, every distiller had his own secret yeast mash recipe and yeast-making technique, which was handed down from father to son.

Sour mash, which most microdistillers also do not use, was developed as a way to control yeast and make it perform consistently from batch to batch.

Most of the old timers who are still around will tell you that handling yeast is one of a distiller's most important skills, the first thing you are taught, because if you can't master that you shouldn't bother with the rest. They're mostly talking about propagating an existing jug yeast strain, to scale it up for production, not making it from scratch. Few distillers (micro or macro) even do that. For most of them, yeast comes in a bag.

I ask bourbon distillers about yeast-making from time to time. I once asked a member of the Beam family if he thought there was anyone still alive who could do it. He thought for a long time and answered, "maybe."

Here is what I know about the way old timers did it in Kentucky and Tennessee. You started with a proprietary yeast mash recipe. A mash for starting yeast is very different from a bourbon mash. It is mostly malt with little if any corn (ironically), plus ingredients such as sulfur and hops. The typical container was a bucket.

Booker remembered his grandmother complaining about how it stunk up the house.

They would mix up a batch, pick a place and wait. When it started to work they judged it by sight, smell, and taste. Maybe even sound. They didn't use microscopes. If they didn't like it, they dumped it out and tried again. They didn't modify the mash -- they knew that worked because it was the recipe their daddy used -- but they might change location. They knew it was largely a trial-and-error process, as much luck and patience as anything.

If they liked the initial action of the yeast, they started to propagate it. If it propagated well, which means it seemed robust and retained its characteristics (which meant it wasn't mutating too much), they would try pitching it into a whiskey mash, again in a test quantity. They scaled up from there.

Because it took so much time and effort to capture and propagate a good strain, the yeast-maker would then go to great lengths to preserve it and keep it from mutating to the point where it became unusable. They would keep it in a sealed container called a dona jug. They might divide it up into several jugs for safe-keeping.

Making a batch of yeast for production meant taking a small amount from the jug and adding it to fresh yeast mash. This yeast mash recipe might be the same as the one used for capturing the yeast, or a variation on that, but it still wasn't the same as the whiskey mash. To set the fermenters to make a batch of whiskey takes a lot of yeast prepared in this way. It's a tedious, several-day process usually done by an apprentice.

When refrigeration came along that helped a lot, since it slowed propagation down, which helped the yeast last longer. Before refrigeration they used root cellars and wells to keep the dona jugs cool. Keeping a particular yeast productive also took luck and skill but they would all mutate eventually and have to be discarded. Today's jug yeasts don't because they have been scientifically purified.

They did all this not because they fancied themselves as artisans. They did it because they didn't have a choice. Their alternative wasn't commercial yeast, it was spontaneous fermentation, which is what they were trying to avoid.

So one can accept why no one does this today. Even people who still use jug yeast use jug yeast that is scientifically supported. I would think that the impulse to make it from scratch is the same as the impulse to make bread from scratch even in an era when you can go to the store and buy good bread. It is a chance to make something that is truly, if only minutely, unique.

Two parallels that reach different conclusions might be malting and milling. Kentucky and Tennessee do not have any tradition of people doing their own malting. They didn't malt because they didn't have to. Acceptable malt was always readily available. Yet they always did their own milling and still do. Why? Either because millers couldn't supply the grind they wanted or because millers couldn't supply distilleries cost-effectively.

I confess yeast-making has a romantic appeal for me but if you want to recapture some of what has been lost in the industrialization of distilling, how better?


Darcy O'Neil said...

Speaking from a biology point of view, the only problem micro-distillers might face is consistency. Since most of them are running on a shoe-string budget, and trying to produce a recognizable, consistent product, using wild yeast strains could strain the budget.

Cheryl - Delaware Phoenix said...

On Sour mash
There's a number of reasons why small distilleries don't advertise using a sour mash even if they do. A major one is that they make a number of different grain whiskies and spirits and it's not practical (without large investment in chilling/refrigeration) to keep backset for long.

The large KY/TN distilleries today produce in such large volumes that it's fine to toss the low wines from their sour mash whiskey just to have a sour marsh starter, assuming they don't have massive refrigeration to keep batches fresh. Since there's no legal definition of sour mash, you can take backset from any bourbon brand in the next bourbon brand.

In the old days, a small distillery say having a still in the 50 to 150 gallon size produced most likely one product. And that was based on the locally available grains. So it was no problem to start the season with your sweet mash run with the backset going to start your sour mash. And that first sweet mash whiskey wasn't thrown out, it most likely went into the same barrels with the following sour mash whiskey.

On Yeast
Even if Beam Brands is using the same yeast Jim Beam captured long ago, it's most likely that it's been scientifically isolated and multiplied to ensure they have the very same yeast.

But keeping a yeast culture going from batch to batch isn't much different whether you started with wild yeast or cultured yeast. Perhaps Chuck is referring to people simply hydrating dry yeast and pitching fresh all the time.

I personally think there's quite a bit of different between the available commercial yeast strains. From the craft brewing world there are maybe a hundred (or more for all I know) ale yeasts available that will produce different flavor profiles. There's probably interesting wine and champagne yeasts as well that may work.

This is an area that's not being explored very much. And for the small distillery with a column on top of the pot, maybe it wouldn't matter.

But I do think that interesting yeast cultures will make more interesting whiskey, and I think that's more interesting than where the yeast came from.

Doctor Tarr said...

I think Chuck is talking about craft distillers buying their yeast rather than maintaining their own strain.

In contrast, I think many craft brewers maintain their own strains of yeast.

erik_flannestad said...

Heh, it's a neat idea. Yes, Darcy has a point about consistency.

Amusingly, a local writer recently tackled a sour dough recipe which called for starting from scratch.

His try at collecting wild yeast and using it to make bread ended up a complete failure.

Maybe he should have been making whiskey?

Matt Lange said...

Doctor Tarr,
Very, very few craft breweries maintain their "own" yeast strains, and if they do, they are strains that have been originally purchased from a commercial yeast manufacturer or propagated from an existing commercial beer. The only breweries that I am aware of that keep their own strains are New Glarus, Anchor and Sierra Nevada. I'm sure there are a hand full of other large breweries who do so as well, but a very small percentage. New Glarus is the only brewery that I have been to that has a lab capable of propagating yeast, and I have been to many, many breweries.
The brewery I used to work in did manage their yeast, however. They would buy a small amount from White Labs, grow a "starter" by adding that yeast to about one barrel of low gravity wort, then pitch the rest of the batch onto that yeast starter. They would then re-pitch that yeast several times before buying more yeast from White Labs. The fear of mutation prevented them from re-using the yeast indefinitely.

Jeff Renner said...

@ Erik - capturing a viable, vigorous and good tasting sour dough culture is no big deal. I've done it often. I'm a commercial artisan baker, but it didn't take any special skill from that. Good instructions are on the web ( FAQ for one). Your local writer should have persevered.

@ Matt - Bell's Brewery (formerly Kalamazoo Brewing) has a fine modern lab in which they propagate their proprietary brewing yeast.

I have "made" brewing yeast a couple of times and it fermented out comparably to commercial yeast, but it had a strong phenolic tang. This is typical of wild yeast. Most brewing yeasts have been selected not to have this. I wonder whether distillers "made" yeast had it.

Chuck Cowdery said...

Jim Beam's yeast has a 'foxy' quality characteristic of wild yeast and you can taste it clearly in the white label expression.

Kathleen Bergman said...

I see that the posts on here are rather old. But I am wondering how one would really go about making a brewing/super/distillers Yeast. I know how to make a sour dough starter, but I am one who wants to know more. These items may some day no longer be available to the average person, or may become not available at all to any one. I would love a recipe if any one has one. Thank you.
If anyone would like to send me one please do at kbergmanlmp at gmail. com

Anonymous said...

@ Kathleen - I can't send you our "recipe", but here is our website that describes how we captured, isolated, and propagate our proprietary yeast strain.

Rob Arnold
Head Distiller, F&R Distilling Co.